In 2007, Zuffa LLC., the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), purchased their top rival, Japan's storied PRIDE Fighting Championships, forever altering the face of worldwide mixed martial arts (MMA). PRIDE, which gave rise to the careers of legendary fighters like Wanderlei Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, carried MMA through its darkest years, during the John McCain-led Congressional witch hunt that ripped the Las Vegas promotion from U.S. airwaves, creating a competitive duopoly with the UFC.
Zuffa's acquisition of PRIDE created a whole new set of dramatic story lines for the fight world, culminating in Quinton "Rampage" Jackson unifying the promotional belts with a technical knockout victory over Chuck Liddell at UFC 71. And after similar buyouts of World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) and Strikeforce, the UFC not only firmly established is place as the world's top organization, but also created a vacancy for a new company to take the reigns as MMA's number two.
Enter the World Series of Fighting (WSOF), which will broadcast its third event on Friday, June 14, headlined by UFC castoffs John Fitch and Josh Burkman.
Like its closest competitors, Bellator Fighting Championship and ONE FC, WSOF counts a bevy of UFC veterans among its stable of fighters, but unlike many fledgling promotions, WSOF has heavy backing, and prime television spots, courtesy of NBC's 24-hour sports network, giving the organization a puncher's chance to gain traction and create synergy with viewers.
Six of the 18 athletes on Friday's WSOF 3 card are former UFC competitors, with lightweights Dan Lauzon and John Gunderson going head-to-head, Jacob Volkmann taking on Lyle Beerbohm, and Brian Cobb squaring off against Justin Gaethje, but the headlines remain on Fitch, an 18-time UFC participant and former welterweight title challenger, who was dropped by the UFC during a 16-man purge in February 2013.
A decorated collegiate wrestler at Purdue University, Fitch, who trains out of San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy, first entered the octagon in October 2005, scoring a unanimous decision over Brock Larson. Never a flashy fighter, not known for knockout power or submission prowess, Fitch grappled his way to 14 UFC wins, one of which came against Burkman, via rear-naked choke in 2006.
Burkman, an alumnus of The Ultimate Fighter season 2, is a well-regarded kick boxer, known for his stunning knockouts and power, and after fighting for three different promotions since the end of his UFC run, he has found a home with the WSOF, where he is 2-0.
Many are quick to point out Burkman's recent resurgence inside the cage and his current four-fight win streak, however, it is Fitch who has the clear edge in this bout, as his wrestling skills and submission defense top Burkman's striking and power.
During its short existence, the WSOF has made an immediate impression on the MMA world, but now the real question remains if the WSOF can sustain its impact on the fight business. And given that they've chosen Las Vegas' Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, a venue oft used by the UFC, as the location for Friday's event, it is clear that the WSOF has every intention of forging ahead.
Meanwhile, the UFC continues to expand outside of its hometown of Las Vegas, heading to Winnipeg, Manitoba for the first time for UFC 161, which is headlined by veteran light heavyweights Dan Henderson and Rashad Evans, a former 205-pound strap holder.
The UFC has made no secret of their plan for worldwide MMA domination, and after securing their share of the North American market, the promotion has already held events in Brazil, England, Sweden, Canada, and Japan in 2013, with only three of their 14 fights this year, thus far, taking place in Las Vegas.
Regardless of UFC 161's location, and despite losing two marquee matchups due to injury - a scrap between interim bantamweight champ Renan Barao and Eddie Wineland was canceled after Barao injured his foot, and the co-main event between Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira fell through with Nogueira citing knee issues - the card still features several crucial matchups.
A perennial contender in the light heavyweight class, Rashad Evans is, for the first time in his career, coming of back-to-back losses. First dropping a unanimous, five-round decision to titleholder Jon Jones at UFC 145, Evans returned to the octagon in February 2013, falling to Nogueira in lackluster fashion. Unable to take the Brazilian down and connect on any significant strikes, Evans faltered, and, briefly considered a drop down to middleweight to re-ignite his career.
Henderson, a former PRIDE and Strikeforce champion, also enters UFC 161 coming off a loss, dropping a split decision to Lyoto Machida at UFC 157, in a fight that could have earned him a long-awaited title shot. A two time Olympian, representing the US on the Greco-Roman mats in 1992 and 1996, Henderson possesses a lethal right hand, and while Evans may be athletic enough to evade Henderson's takedowns, all signs point toward a Henderson knockout, some time in the second or third rounds.
Joining Evans and Henderson on the UFC 161 main card are heavyweights Roy "Big Country" Nelson and Stipe Miocic.
Nelson, who won season 10 of The Ultimate Fighter, is on a tear of late, knocking out three straight opponents, most recently KO-ing Cheick Congo in the first round at UFC 159, while Miocic, an athletic wrestler with solid ground and pound, is coming off his first career loss, suffering a TKO to Stefan Struve in September 2012.
It is always interesting to see new stars in the making, and Miocic most likely has a long octagon career ahead of him, but in this fight, it's all Nelson, as his strong chin, devastating power, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt skills will help him score a stoppage.
For the UFC, the focus remains on promoting the best MMA fights the world has to offer. However, for the WSOF, the future has limitless potential, and for the first time, fight fans can watch both promotions on consecutive nights, vying for our attentions and allegiances.